Reexamining History: How Can We Engage with the Stories We’re Told?

Last Updated: 14 May 2021

This past year, the UK has had to reckon with its history like never before. The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 not only shed a stark light on the systemic racism that blights the opportunities of many in the UK, they also encouraged an examination of the UK’s colonial past and its role in shaping the racist structures that persist today. Across the country, young people called for their schools to decolonise the curriculum and be honest about the extent to which the UK profited from human suffering and pillaging during the times of empire, a period which many in the UK still regard as a source of pride.1 The protests and national self-reflection that followed also triggered a debate about the many statues commemorating colonial figures and the appropriateness of having them in lauded positions on the nation’s streets: the statue of Edward Colston, the Bristol slave trader, was pulled down by protestors and rolled into the harbour;2 the statue of Robert Milligan, another slave trader, was removed lawfully by a London council after a successful petition;3 and the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a man who was known for his white-supremacist views and cutthroat imperialism, which has looked down on the streets of Oxford for over a century, was once again placed in the spotlight after an unsuccessful 2015 campaign calling for its removal (the statue might be removed in 2021).4

These actions and conversations show a public desire to honestly face up to the destructive, exploitative, and painful aspects of the UK’s past, and to challenge the rose-tinted stories of empire that permeate through the education system, the world of politics, and society at large. Part of the difficulty in facing up to this history is the fact that it goes against many of the stories we have been told about Britain: British colonialism has been presented as benevolently superior to that of other countries,5 and much of the violent history has been excised from the country’s historical narrative, to the extent that many Britons themselves believe it was a force of good.6 It is these stories that we need to engage with and challenge to ensure that the history, in all its destructive complexity, is being told.

This Teaching Idea prepares young people to be critical consumers of stories they are told and encourages them to consider how unpicking historical narratives can both be an act of justice and a catalyst for action. It is divided into two parts: In Part One, students engage with the story of Tom Rivett-Carnac, a climate change campaigner and descendent of the chairman of the East India Company, and his experience of listening to and re-examining his family’s tales of empire. Part Two, then, offers opportunities to explore the British Empire in further depth.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the PowerPoint for this Teaching Idea.
 

Part One: Reflect on Stories and History

  1.   Consider the Power of Storytelling

    • Explain to students that they will be thinking about the stories that they hear and/or are told about the past and the impact that they can have on the present. 
    • Invite students to reflect on the power of stories by journaling on the following quotation and prompts concerning the power of stories:
      Those who tell the stories rule society. —Plato
      • What do you think this statement means?
      • Do you agree or disagree with the statement? Explain your answers.
      • Plato was a Greek Philosopher, who wrote this statement almost 2,500 years ago. Can you connect it to anything you see, read or hear today?
    • Have students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, and then invite some students to share their ideas with the class.
  2. Introduce the East India Company

    • Next, explain to students that they will be looking at a case study concerning a climate change campaigner called Tom Rivett-Carnac, whose ancestors held prominent roles in the British Empire in India and were involved in the colonising trading company known as the East India company.
    • Before you play a recording of Tom Rivett-Carnac reflecting on his family’s history, give students more information about the British Empire in India and the East India Company by sharing the following text:
    The East India Company began as a trading company in the early 1600s, which sent boats to India to trade silver and European goods for spices, cottons, and other wares. This trade was hugely profitable and meant that the company grew in size,  building various warehouses and factories in India, and eventually a private army. Over the next 250 years, the company was able to gain control of large tracts of the country and its people by exploiting divisions between leaders and looting India’s wealth.7 However, in 1858, after a rebellion against the company’s oppressive rule, notably its insensitivity towards people’s religions,8 the British government took over control of India, beginning the period known as the British Raj, which lasted until 19479. Modern estimates suggest Britain stole the equivalent of $45 trillion (£32.5 trillion) from India in the period between 1765 and 1938.10
     
  3. Explore Tom Rivett-Carnac’s Reexamining of History

    • Introduce the case study of the climate change campaigner Tom Rivett-Carnac and explain to students that he is a descendant of the chairman of the East India Company, and that his ancestors played prominent roles in the British Raj.
    • Inform students that they will listen to a recording by Tom Rivett-Carnac reflecting on his heritage twice. 
    • Play the following recording until 06.27, inviting students to just listen the first time: Tom Rivett-Carnac: Rethinking History (BBC Sounds)
    • Then, play the recording a second time and invite students to make notes on what they hear and anything that stands out to them.
    • Finally, discuss these questions: 
      • Why do you think when history is revised, as the narrator suggests, it shakes some people to their core?  
        • Why does it excite and embolden others?  
      • What is the relationship between history and identity? Between how we think of ourselves and our nation today?
      • How and why does our understanding of history change over time?
      • Why do we need to face our history? 
        • According to Rivett-Carnac, how does the pandemic provide an answer to that question?
      • Rivett-Carnac speaks of the moment in an art gallery in India when he learnt the truth about the brutality of the East India Company, stating that he realised ‘the story of glory, of riches and rewards for some was one of misery, servitude and exploitation for many’.
        • Why might the perspectives of those who suffered at the hands of the British Empire and East India company have been removed from the narrative in the UK?
        • What can this teach us about the stories we hear?
      • Rivett-Carnac states that to not honestly retell the past ‘would be an act of narrative violence towards those who were persecuted.’
        • What might he mean by this? 
        • How can an ‘honest re-telling of history’ help lead us to a more just future?
      • How has history inspired Rivett-Carnac to devote his career to addressing the climate crisis?
        • Why, as Rivett-Carnac states, is the climate crisis also a social justice issue?
      • Why does the narrator say we should ‘embrace complexity’? 
        • How does he define the work of understanding history?
  4. Reflect on Stories You’ve Been Told

    • Close the lesson by inviting students to journal on one or more of the following questions:
      1. Think about a story that you have heard/been told about. This could be in your family, at school, or in wider society.
        • What is the story?
        • In what situations have you heard it? 
        • How has it shaped you and your understanding of the world? 
        • Whose perspective is the story told from?
        • Which perspectives might be missing from the story?
      2. Thinking back to Rivett-Carnac’s moment of realisation in the art gallery, consider the following: 
        • Have you ever had a realisation in which you have learnt that your knowledge of something was flawed, incomplete, or downright false? 
        • What was the situation? 
        • What lessons can you learn from this?
      3. Rivett-Carnac mentions the stories that he would like to share with grandchildren, and the fact they would be more complex and contain the darker sides of history, but also hopefully tell of a moment in which we acted together, facing the ‘demons of the past,’ to shape a bright future.
        • What stories would you like to tell to children in the future about how we responded to the current moment? 
        • What can you do to help those stories happen? 

Part Two: Delve Deeper into Britain’s Colonial Past

  1. Reflect on the British Empire

    • Explain to students that they will be exploring Britain’s colonial history and will begin by reflecting on what they already know.
    • First, invite students to journal on the following prompts:
      1. What is an empire? 
      2. What have you learned about the British Empire?  
        • Where did you learn it?  
        • Who taught it to you?  
      3. Has the history of the British Empire been presented as a positive history, a negative history, or a mix?  
        • What did you think and feel while learning this history?
    • Invite students to share their responses in a class discussion.
    • Then, provide students with the following definitions:
      1. Empire: a group of territories, countries or peoples ruled over by one person, government, or country. 
      2. Colonialism: the practice by which a powerful country directly controls less powerful countries and uses its resources to increase its own power and wealth. This power is often gained through invasion and by force.11
      3. Colony: a country or area controlled politically by a more powerful country that is often far away.12
  2. Delve Deeper into the British Empire

    • Explain to students that the history of the British Empire is long and complex, but that they will delve a little deeper into this history before reflecting on how it connects, extends, or challenges what they already know.
    • To help your students learn more about the British Empire, you might choose to share the video Why does the British Empire matter? (BBC), the reading "Expansion Was Everything" and/or the following text: 

    The start of the British Empire can be traced to the sixteenth century before the Acts of Union, which marked the union of England and Scotland in 1707. England began building an empire by establishing settlements and trading posts, often by force, in other countries, notably Ireland, India, North America, the West Indies, and places in West Africa. These early settlements in the Americas and Africa laid the foundations for England’s, and later Britain’s, key role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain, and England before it, were responsible for enslaving over 3.4 million Africans13 (over a quarter of those enslaved).14 Those involved in this destructive and exploitative trade justified their actions by proclaiming the superiority of whites and the inferiority of the Black Africans who they were kidnapping.15 This doctrine of white supremacy would influence later colonisers,16 shape British views on race, and lay the foundations for the systemic racism that still exists today.17

    At the end of the eighteenth century, Britain lost control of the colonies in North America in the American War of Independence. Despite this, the British Empire continued to grow as more colonies were established around the world, first in Australasia, then in Asia and Africa. In these colonies, as in earlier ones, Britain, the ‘mother country’, imposed its rule on the original inhabitants and extracted wealth to make Britain richer. At its peak in 1920, the British Empire controlled 25% of the Earth’s land surface and held dominion over hundreds of millions of people.18 This great imbalance in power, brought about through oppression and invasion, was not regarded as shameful, rather colonisers and Britons viewed colonialism as a noble endeavour, civilising ‘uncivilised’ peoples and providing a service to the countries that they were in fact pillaging.19

    Despite its dominance in the early twentieth-century, by the 1960s most of Britain’s former colonies had gained independence and were no longer subject to the rule of Great Britain.20 But the influence of the British Empire did not end there: that the British Empire was a dominant force in the world is evident through the prevalence of the English language and of Christianity, the popularity of sports such as rugby and cricket, and the existence of the Commonwealth, which is an association of 54 countries, many of which are former colonies.21 Many also argue that Britain left behind valuable infrastructure, such as the trains in India, and progressive methods of education and governance. Pointing, however, to the benefits of being colonised has become problematic in recent years, particularly as it ignores the fact that many of the colonised countries could have made this progress themselves without the damage inflicted by colonialism.

    Moreover, the darker legacy of the British Empire is undeniable in the world in which we live today. Not only do the aftereffects of colonial violence and its doctrine of white supremacy still reverberate through the lives of the descendants of those who lived under colonial rule,22 but the racism the colonists created determines how our society is organised and who the wealth-holders are.23 Present inequality in the UK, and the world, is inseparable from the history of the British Empire. However, in Britain, this destructive history, and how it has shaped the present, has not been adequately addressed, and thus among some groups there is a certain nostalgia for the days of empire, when Britain was a global superpower: 33% of those surveyed on the topic in 2020 believed colonies were better off as part of the British Empire.24

    • Once you have shared the resource(s), ask students to complete a Connect, Extend, Challenge Chart. They might work independently or with a partner to answer the following questions:
      1. Connect: How do the ideas and information shared connect to what you already know about the British Empire?
      2. Extend: How does the information shared extend or broaden your thinking about the British Empire?
      3. Challenge: Does the information shared challenge or complicate your understanding of the British Empire? What new questions does it raise for you?
    • Finally, lead a class discussion using the following questions: 
      1. How might it have felt to be someone living in a country that was colonised by the British? Explain your view.
      2. What evidence do you see of the legacy of the British Empire in society?
      3. Why and how have the British Empire and colonialism been in the news this past year?
        • How are people talking about it? 
        • Does everyone feel the same way?
      4. When discussing Britain’s history as a colonial power, whose stories need to be told?

Extension: Colonialism and Present Day Inequality

Rivett-Carnac identifies the link between our history and present-day inequality. Should you wish to explore more about the impact of colonialism on our society today with your students, take a look at the following resources:

  1. Article: The economic impact of colonialism (Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson, VoxEU)
  2. Article: 'Colonialism had never really ended': my life in the shadow of Cecil Rhodes (Simukai Chigudu, The Guardian)
  3. Video: How Britain Stole $45 Trillion from India with Trains | Empires of Dirt (Vice News)—please note at 4.30 in the video, there are some disturbing descriptions of the violence people suffered following partition. 
  4. Video: How Banks Made Money From Slavery | Empires of Dirt (Vice News)

Additional Resources

Citations

 

Download the PowerPoint for this Teaching Idea

Reexamining History: How Can We Engage with the Stories We’re Told?

Reexamining History: How Can We Engage with the Stories We’re Told?

This PowerPoint for the Teaching Idea “Reexamining History: How Can We Engage with the Stories We’re Told?” comes complete with student-facing slides and teaching notes, and is ready to use in the classroom.

 

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